Let the Light Shine In: The Royal Commission

Much has been said already in the week since Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced her intention to ask the Governor General to establish a Royal Commission into institutional responses to instances and allegations of child sexual abuse in Australia.

I want to offer here just a few thoughts about what I think is important to remember throughout this process.

1) Firstly, it is vital that the Terms of Reference are well thought through and carefully set. Though Royal Commissions have considerable power to investigate, they are very much restricted by the Terms of Reference in regards to their final recommendations. As such, the Terms of Reference for this particular Commission must be suitably wide in scope (due to the nature of the investigation), but not so wide that it becomes practically impossible to complete the required investigations at a suitable depth. Linked with this, the Commission must be allowed a suitable time-frame for the investigations to take place, but it can’t drag on forever. Balancing these concerns will be very tricky indeed, and it is quite possible that no one will be truly happy with the Terms of Reference when they are set!

Building out of this, it is also worthwhile noting clearly that the end result of Royal Commissions is the publication of their findings with recommendations. These recommendations are not automatically enacted into policy, and the Commission itself is not a court of law. I point this out simply because many will no doubt be disappointed at the conclusion of this particular Commission if (and when) nothing happens immediately upon the release of the findings, and there will surely come cries of frustration and distress at the prospect of then having to wait for policy makers to go through the necessary processes or the thought of possibly lengthy criminal trials or litigation. As such, we should be mindful of this at the outset.

Finally on this general point, we should remember from the very beginning that the focus of this investigation, once the Terms of Reference are set, will include (and perhaps prominently feature) the Roman Catholic Church, but is not restricted to it. I will note below the responsibility that I think the Roman Catholic Church has in all of this, but I just wanted to point out that, while people in positions of authority in the Roman Catholic Church have, very distressingly(!), been proven to have been guilty of numerous abhorrent crimes against children (and unfathomable cover-ups), they are (again very distressingly!) not the only organisation to be marred by systemic problems in this regard. This is not to absolve the Roman Catholic Church of any guilt here in any way (and please let me be perfectly clear about this); it is simply to point out that abuse of this kind is abominable wherever it occurs.

2) Secondly, then, it is very important to note that this is going to be a particularly distressing process for those who have lived through unimaginable abuse, and for the families and friends of those who suffered abuse but have since died (or who may die before the process is complete) and therefore won’t see the end result of this Commission. Experiencing the abuse itself is difficult enough (to say the least!), and ‘re-living’ it while giving evidence for the investigation is going to be seriously traumatic for many involved (though it must be said that the process itself could also bring much healing). There are going to be people, no doubt, who will be very hesitant to open up painful emotional wounds. There are going to be people who have worked very, very hard at ‘moving on’, and this process is going to be excruciating. The process will possibly, perhaps, be enough to push some perilously close to the edge. There will be some who have become distrustful of all authority due to the fact that they raised the abuse with people in positions of authority and were summarily dismissed. Some of these people may therefore not have any trust in the process of the Commission.

It is thus extremely important that the investigators go about their duties with great care and compassion, and we must all remember that this is real people’s lives that we are talking about here. The formalities of this process must make room for the full humanity of those who have already been treated with something far less than the respect and dignity they deserve through the abuse they have experienced. Having said that, we should remind ourselves that those who have experienced such abuse need empathy rather than pity.

For those of us who come from a faith perspective, we should pray.

3) Thirdly, I strongly believe that the Roman Catholic Church must embrace this process with openness and humility. In fact, I would probably go so far as to say that, unless they are to do so, their future in Australian society may be on very shaky ground. Cardinal Pell has (rightly) noted that, unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church is not the only ‘cab in the rank’ here. This is true, and I have noted this above. He may (and I stress ‘may’) also be right in suggesting that there could be something of a tendency in the media to focus solely or predominantly on the Catholic Church in these regards, and that this process could turn into a kind of ‘witch hunt’ focusing only on Catholic priests.

This is certainly possible, and such a ‘witch hunt’ would be something far less than ideal.

However, what the Roman Catholic Church needs right now, I believe, is not the kind of defiance – even arrogance – displayed (I would suggest) so often by the Cardinal, but rather it needs to allow light to shine into some very dark places. Of course, I would argue that all other organisations and agencies involved assume the same attitude, but I do feel that it is of particular importance for those in authority in the Roman Catholic Church at this point in time.

It seems to me that if one were to play a word association game with many Australians, the result would be a high correlation between ‘Catholic Church’ and ‘child sexual abuse’. This is profoundly unfortunate, not only because the Catholic Church links itself to the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth (and should therefore be associated with words like ‘selflessness’, ‘grace’, and ‘humility’), but also because it pretty much writes off all the good work done by so many faithful Roman Catholics (clergy and laity) throughout history. We must, therefore, not forget that the Roman Catholic Church has done much ‘good’ in our world (though some would argue otherwise), but neither must we ignore the great evil done in its name.

As such, the only way I see the Catholic Church coming out on the other side of this process is for it to take the extraordinary and absolutely necessary step of moving towards full transparency. This would obviously be a profoundly painful (and even ‘dangerous’) thing for the Church authorities to do, but as far as I can see it is the only option. With full disclosure and an attitude of humility and deep contrition, I think the Catholic Church could go a long way to restoring some of the lost confidence of the Australian public, and could perhaps greatly assist many who have experienced abuse at the hands of those representing the Church in finding true healing and seeing justice done

At the end of the day, this whole process is necessary because children have so often been horrendously mistreated by the very people who have been entrusted with their wellbeing. This reality is truly heartbreaking, and an extraordinary breaking of trust. As such, this Royal Commission could be a really good thing, though it will no doubt be a sometimes-messy and certainly painful process. It won’t be perfect. It won’t be a silver bullet to fix all that is so shamefully broken. It just won’t. But it might just be – and I pray that it would be so – an opportunity for healing to come to the survivors of such abuse, and also an opportunity to shine light in dark places and to see changes take place to ensure that these things do not happen again.

If the Royal Commission does some of this, then it will be worth it.


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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

2 thoughts on “Let the Light Shine In: The Royal Commission”

  1. Hi Josh,

    Wow, This is an extremelly well thought out and written blog and I thankyou for sharing it with me. As a survivor myself ( not at the hands of the catholic church) I truly pray that massive change happens in both society in general and also in institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church.

    I too am worried that this will become a witch hunt and other perpetrators will slip through the cracks. This commission needs to and MUST look at the whole problem not just one piece of the puzzle.

    I also agree if the Roman Catholic Church is to make it through the other side as you put it, they must been seen to be assisting rather than avoiding or hiding the commission and it’s representatives. It must be willing to open it’s closet of secrets and expose those who are truly evil in this world hiding behind the thing that should be exposing them not protecting them.


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